NEW YORK (Reuters) - Author John Irving’s latest book, “In One Person,” is his most politically charged novel since his 1980s best sellers, “The Cider House Rules” and “A Prayer for Owen Meany.”
Irving’s 13th book is about a bisexual boy from rural Vermont named Billy Abbott who has crushes on the wrong people, including his town’s transgender librarian. He learns to navigate his relationships in a world that consistently views him as suspect.
After its release last month, “In One Person” quickly became a best seller and earned praise from Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.
Irving, 70, spoke with Reuters about the politics of his latest novel, bisexuality and recurring themes in his work.
Q: LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) issues are a hot political topic right now, but the discourse doesn’t touch much on the “B” or “T” as frequently. Why choose to write Billy as bisexual and include several transgendered characters?
A: “For many gay men of my generation, the bisexual man was disbelieved. He was perceived for the most part as a gay guy who lacked the courage to come all the way out of the closet. I think young gay men today are far more accepting or tolerant of the bisexual man than many gay men of my generation were. It was purposeful on my part to make Billy a bisexual so that he would feel the sting of that solitariness and be aware of the distrust of his gay and straight friends alike.
“That was a deliberate choice, just as it seemed only logical to me for a character like Billy that he would find these two transgender women at either end of his life - of different ages and from different eras - very sympathetic if only because he recognizes that they are as marginalized and distrusted by society as he is. They are as you say the “BT” part the “LGBT” abbreviation, but they get a little less attention - that’s all. I was very conscious of making that choice for exactly those reasons. If you’re going to test the waters of our tolerance for sexual differences, well let’s really test it.”
Q: “In One Person” takes place over Billy’s lifetime, so he is about your age when he is looking back and retelling things. From that perspective, how do think the plight of sexual minorities has changed over that time?
A: “I guess you could say that our tolerance for sexual differences is better or different than it was in the late 1970s when ‘The World According to Garp’ was published. But if I felt our tolerance of sexual differences was perfect, I don’t think I would have had this novel on my mind for 10, now almost 12 years, or I wouldn’t have written it at all. So I wouldn’t say that our tolerance of sexual differences is what it should be.
“Witness the Republican Party, witness the lineup of clowns who are indulging in righteous gay-bashing, right up to (Mitt) Romney’s ascendance to the throne, and Romney has subscribed in kind. His position on gay rights issues is lamentable, to be kind.”
Q: In the book you draw a lot on plays and novels - “Madame Bovary,” Norwegian playwright Ibsen, Shakespeare. Why?
A: “It seemed that the childhood of this character was fortunately imaginative. He had some preparation from the world of theater and the world of books for the sexual difficulties he would face. I think literature is a support system for many people who find themselves in a sexual minority. It isn’t just that he has the support or encouragement of a good, albeit unusual librarian, and that he has the love of an unusually good stepfather. In Shakespeare, in Ibsen, he finds some pretty powerful testimonies for sexual differences.”
Q: Certain themes surface repeatedly in your novels - some politically-tinged issues, unusual sexual relationships, absent parents, wrestling, New England, etc. Why these common threads, and what motivates you to return to them?
A: “Many of the so-called common things you mention to me are kind of superficial landmarks, like the landscape of northern New England.
“I would say a more common thread that doesn’t often get mentioned to each of my novels is an element of predetermination, an element of fate. Where they are going is something the reader can see from very early on, this novel being no exception - a story that begins in the 1950s and ‘60s and you’re already listening to the voice of an older man as you have in ‘In One Person.’
“It’s the story of a bisexual boy, and you’re meeting various gay friends and lovers. I’m not giving anything away, but the reader knows an AIDS epidemic is coming, and many of these characters you’re meeting are not going to get through it. There’s always an element of that kind.
“Everyone from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Thomas Hardy to Nathaniel Hawthorne - their most interesting work was about challenging sexual relationships. I don’t think there’s anything new about it. Hamlet is a sex story. Othello is a sex story. Macbeth is a dysfunctional marriage story. I didn’t invent these things, I read about them in so-called classical literature. People have found sexual relationships the most trying and important parts of their lives since before Shakespeare.”
(This story corrects Romney’s first name in the second answer)
Reporting by Andrea Burzynski; editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Andrew Hay